Oct 23, 2014 | 09:16 GMT

4 mins read

A Power Struggle Emerges in Venezuela

Venezuela Faces an Emerging Power Struggle

Venezuela is bracing itself for an Oct. 23 public protest staged by pro-government patronage networks known locally as colectivos. An unspecified number of colectivos are expected to demonstrate against the Oct. 7 killing of Jose Odreman, the leader of the "March 5" colectivo, by the Criminal Investigative Police (known by its Spanish acronym, CICPC).

Odreman was killed along with four other colectivo members following a raid on the colectivo headquarters in the Quinta Crespo area of Caracas. Three policemen were taken hostage in the ensuing eight-hour standoff. The events suggest possible fractures within the official and unofficial security forces that Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro will have to rely on to secure the stability of his government in the coming months and years.

Venezuela Faces an Emerging Power Struggle

Location of Oct. 7 Firefight Between Police and March 5 Colectivo

The central government has not acknowledged that Odreman was a member of a colectivo, instead claiming he had outstanding warrants for homicide. Several photographs exist of Odreman with United Socialist Party of Venezuela officials, including Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez Torres and deceased legislator Robert Serra, who was killed in a home invasion on Oct. 1. An unconfirmed report claimed that Odreman's colectivo, which has operated in the Cotiza neighborhood since at least 2011, was targeted because of its role in displacing a criminal group sponsored by the local CICPC commander. On Oct. 15, approximately 40 individuals claiming to represent 50 colectivos protested in Caracas to demand an end to police raids on their headquarters. The colectivos subsequently met with CICPC Director Jose Gregorio Serralta to discuss their grievances.

The Origins of the Colectivos

Colectivos have become a reliable and effective way for Venezuela's government to exert power through irregular channels. The groups have been used to intimidate dissenters and operate beyond the boundaries of the conventional state apparatus. Stratfor previously noted:

The colectivos emerged from political patronage networks created early in the presidency of Hugo Chavez. In April 2001, Diosdando Cabello was serving as Chavez's chief of staff, and current Interior Minister Miguel Rodriguez Torres was the head of the Directorate of Police Intelligence Services. Chavez tasked the two of them with creating what became called the Bolivarian Circles — community-level organizations responsible for identifying local concerns for the presidency in order to target resources and generate widespread support for Chavez.

The colectivos of Caracas were among the support bases of the original Bolivarian Circles. During his tenure, Chavez complemented the Bolivarian Circles with other institutions, including the Bolivarian militia, a volunteer force that helped Chavez protect himself against the possibility of a military coup by setting up alternate and competing armed groups. Stratfor previously observed:

The Bolivarian Circles were established nationwide in 2002, and all of them participate in community organization, social activities and some political activities. The most politically active of the colectivos have grown up around the Bolivarian Circles' support bases in the Barrio 23 de Enero in Caracas. These groups, which have emerged at different times over the past decades, included La Piedrita, Montaraz, Simon Bolivar, Los Tupamaros, Alexis Vive and the Carapaica movement. These are the groups that are linked most closely to violent harassment of political dissenters. The United Socialist Party of Venezuela has never publicly ordered the colectivos to attack political opponents, but the colectivos routinely have emerged during periods of political confrontation. For example, the colectivos escalated attacks on opposition protests in 2002 and 2003 and have played a key role in the recent unrest.

An Emerging Rift

Regardless of the proximate cause of the conflict between CICPC and the March 5 colectivo, disunity among the state's security forces comes at a dangerous time for Maduro. During the next few months, Caracas will likely see its income from oil exports reduced and will consequently have less funds available for meeting its domestic spending obligations, which are a key pillar of public support for the government. With fewer dollars available to fund government spending, the Maduro administration's options will narrow.

Venezuela can continue deficit spending to meet budgetary goals, but it will have to contend with further inflation and cash-starved state firms. Inflation already stands at more than 60 percent year-on-year, and will continue rising for the foreseeable future. As a result, the ruling party's once-high approval ratings, another major pillar of support for the government, will continue to decline in coming months.

With further domestic unrest likely from dissatisfied citizens, the control of police bodies, the National Guard and auxiliary security forces (such as the colectivos) will become increasingly important for Maduro. If the Odreman killing leads to a significant portion of the colectivos becoming unavailable to the central government to deploy against protesters, Maduro will lose a useful tool for mitigating social unrest. 

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